United 93: an interview with former CBS journalist Christine Dobbyn

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

Undicisettembre offers today its readers the personal account of former CBS journalist Christine Dobbyn who covered the crash of United 93 on the day of the crash and in the following period.

We would like to thank Christine Dobbyn for her kindness and willingness to help.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what you saw and experienced on that day?

Christine Dobbyn:
I was working as a news reporter at the CBS station in Columbus, Ohio. It was fairly early in my journalism career and I was working the early morning shift. Anybody who watches morning news may not realize reporters are getting up at 2 a.m. to work. Columbus is right in the middle of the state of Ohio and we covered a lot of the state. On that particular day, there was a news conference about two hours east of Columbus about a murder case. After our morning live shots we were assigned to cover this news conference, I believe it was Grimes County. Not long before we got there we got a phone call from our assignment desk and they said "Start driving to New York" and then proceeded to give us a couple quick sentences about what was going on.

This was pre-smartphones, not pre-cellphones but we didn't have instant access to the news. That particular morning we were just talking and didn't have the radio on, it was myself and my photographer. Sometimes we might have the radio on a trip, sometimes we were just were just enjoying each other's company and it was quite a shock hearing what was happening. Completely unbelievable. We, of course, wanted more information but the directive at that point was "Start driving to New York.” We also had our satellite truck and the operator with us because he was coming to cover the original news conference. After we got maybe an hour down the road, we got another phone call from the assignment desk. This time they said, "Don't go to New York, there's been a crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. We want to divert you there and we are going to send other crews on further East."

Outside of the local Pennsylvania news we believe we were one of the first crews to the site. I remember looking up at this hill where all the emergency personnel were and I saw what looked like some metal blob on the top of the hill and I thought that that was the plane at that point, but I came to find out what I was looking had nothing to do with it, it was more like a scrap metal yard and the crash site was actually over the hill in a valley or a ravine on the other side. What was interesting is I've covered thousands of breaking news stories over the years and most of the time when you arrive at a scene it's very chaotic, there's a lot going on, you're rushing around trying to get interviews with eyewitnesses and first responders; but this was the complete opposite because this plane went down in the middle of rural Pennsylvania and there were no survivors. There were local emergency personnel up on the hill but as far as the news media we were just standing down there like looking up the hill like, "What do we do?"

That afternoon law enforcement did actually take media crews up the hill in small groups to shoot video. It was really shocking to see there was nothing there, the smoke was gone. It was just black from where the fire had happened. It was stunning to see that was all that's left. When you see videos from the Shanksville story there's not much in them from that initial situation because there wasn't local media close by, what you see in the videos was pretty much what I was looking at; emergency responders in hazmat suits down there just looking at the scene.

In the days to come we did a lot of stories in the community. We found some people who heard the noise, because it happened close to the backyard of a farmer's property; we talked to people in that community about what had happened and so on. That became our story there, it was just talking to the people of Shanksville and nearby Somerset about what had just happened in their backyard. Now people know the name Shanksville but back then it was just this small quaint town, so Americana. It’s a beautiful community, the people are beautiful and this tragedy put them on the map historically. Certainly, in a way they never expected.

Undicisettembre: Did you cover the event also in the next days?

Christine Dobbyn: Yes. In the days to come the scene did become much more active. The FBI came in and provided briefings a couple times a day. The information was very slow to come out and of course the family members of all those victims were spread across the country, so for our local news station it was difficult. The national outlets had resources and they were talking to the families across the country, but as far as family being right there to talk with it was difficult. There were some some experts from aviation and counterterrorism that came to the site. Some of the networks made arrangements for them to come, and then they would mill around and offer themselves up for interviews. From a journalistic perspective it was a challenging story to cover because at that particular scene there was this gravity of what had happened, but the resources and the content to really tell the story were not all right there, they were spread out.

Undicisettembre: You also mentioned talking to the families, what can you tell us about them? What struck you about them?

Christine Dobbyn: That came later. Once back in Columbus we had a local family connection. Since then I’ve interviewed other families from across the country. There was the family of the pilot of Flight 93 Jason Dahl, he had relatives in Columbus, Ohio, as well as across the country. We've done several stories with his family over the years. One thing that sticks out in my mind is he was a pilot who just loved flying and if I recall he actually switched his shift with another pilot to be home early for his anniversary or birthday or something.

I remember the first time that I flew after 9/11 with the new restrictions, as I was going through security I got super emotional when taking my shoes off and doing all those new protocols which now we're completely used to. For a long time when I would walk through an airport, and especially when I would see a pilot, I would think of Captain Jason Dahl. I would think of that picture his family shared with us to use in our story.

After I came to Houston about fifteen years ago to work for the ABC station, I became acquainted with another family, the Catuzzi family, whose daughter Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas was killed on the flight. Another kind of chance situation, she had been to the Northeast for her grandmother's funeral and decided to bump up her flight and take an earlier flight and ended up being on on Flight 93. She was living in the San Francisco area at the time. I've interviewed her parents and her sister and gotten to know what kind of person she was. She was in the process of writing a book and her family has since finished the book and published it in her honor. It's an interesting book, it's sort of like a Girl Scout book encouraging, particularly women, to go try these new adventurous things. She was just someone who really had this zest and adventure for life. I think that legacy has been carried on through her book.

Undicisettembre: What can you tell me about the crash site? Did anything in particular strike you?

Christine Dobbyn: Some of the family members said, "If it had to happen, there couldn't be a more beautiful place.” You know, those are the remains of their loved ones in that valley. It is truly a beautiful place. People in that community take it so seriously honouring them and protecting that site. I was there on the ten-year anniversary with Larry Catuzzi, Lauren's dad. He's been very involved with the committee to build the memorial and museum there. I interviewed him overlooking the site and he said, "It's serene, peaceful, tranquil." All those words have been used to describe the site. Even though it's just so difficult, it's a special place to those families.

The actual area where some of the remains are is sectioned off so only families can go there. Now they've got more structure in place, the whole memorial site and a wooded area in which only families can go. The last time I was there, up on the hill, they had built the wall of names and the memorial. The visitor center was also completed recently.

As far as the community and the town, I've spent time in the town of Somerset and Somerset County just talking with some of the shop owners and different people. They said they've met a lot of the families who come to town to visit the site or that are part of the committee to help build a memorial. They all just really took an important role in the development the site and making sure it's memorialized for always.

A couple of other thoughts come to mind. Once it happened people reacted in different ways, a lot of people wanted to come and see it in and share their sorrow and grief or leave a note here or there or something else. So for the first few years afterwards, they put a chain-link fence up at the site before anything was built and people came from all over. It’s a rural place, and off one of the major interstates. But when travelling to the east coast area people stop to see it and they would leave teddy bears, notes and just everything you can imagine. Initially this little county museum took responsibility and started caring for all the items. I remember the first year anniversary when I went again, they had taken these items and they were preserving them, curating them, dusting them off, cleaning them and putting them in archival boxes to go into the museum eventually. I thought that was tremendous foresight to start thinking that way and making sure that every person who left something feel like it really mattered.

The second thing that comes to mind was there is a priest that bought this abandoned chapel nearby, which is now called the Flight 93 Chapel. He's basically made this a memorial just through donations. I've also done a story or two with him. He has made a little individual memorial around the chapel, you can go around and read about each victim and their lives and their backgrounds.

Undicisettembre: Being you a journalist, how was this case unique in comparison to other you've been involved with?

Christine Dobbyn: I was very early in my journalism career so I think I kind of had shell shock that day. Just like everyone else but even from a career perspective thinking this might be the biggest story I'll ever cover.

Everyone remembers where they were and my "9/11 story" is Flight 93, all my experiences and being at the site. I think there is a general feeling that sometimes the Flight 93 site is forgotten; New York and DC get so much publicity and they are major areas where they get more visitors, but this is not to be forgotten. I also think it's a completely different story, not just in the way that it ended but also what transpired up to what we've learned about what the passengers did. They were heroes, they tried, and a lot of people believe they were close, to being successful to taking over the terrorists.

Undicisettembre: While you guys were working there, was anyone having doubts about the fact that a plane had crashed in that zone?

Christine Dobbyn: No. I don't believe anyone had doubts. I don't recall that being asked to the FBI at their news conferences. I think the big question at that point was what the target for that plane was; I think there was a theory the target was Camp David at the time, but we didn't know exactly. Eventually, the conclusion was the Capitol, but there were a lot of theories around that. There was more speculation and talk about that at the news conferences and of course everybody wanted the answers right away. Then, of course, the press corps asked how they located the black boxes, why it took them a while to do. I don’t mean to be too graphic here, but the answer was that it was heavily impacted into the ground. That was the line of questioning that I recall.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories according to which 9/11 was an inside job and that no plane crashed in Shanksville?

Christine Dobbyn: To be honest, I've never thought a lot about that. As a journalist I seek the truth, I was close to the story numerous times. I saw the crash site with my own eyes. I saw how shaken the local first responders were. Other than some questions that we will never have the answers to, I've never had any doubt about what's been reported to us and what I've reported. I always believed it and felt comfortable with what we were being told. I think as a reporter you get a gut feeling when something isn't right and as far as the information I compiled over the course of my trips to Shanksville, I've never felt that it wasn't right or accurate.

Undicisettembre: How would you compare the crisis after 9/11 to the crisis for COVID the country is living now?

Christine Dobbyn: I actually left journalism in 2019, I'm on the other side of things right now and it's been very different. I own my own media marketing company and right now I'm doing PR and media relations for two clinics in Houston conducting the COVID vaccine trials. I'm pitching media and working with media to tell the story, so it is completely different. I will say when COVID first hit, it was the first major crisis in my adult life in which I wasn't a reporter. I felt really helpless, because my superpower was always feeling like I could help communicate and inform people, be out there or be the eyes and ears for the public. I wasn't doing that this time.

So personally it's been a little bit difficult to watch it unfold. Then I started working with the vaccine trials which gives me some purpose and feeling of helping with the process and moving forward. But to me they're very different. I think after 9/11 with the grief and the sadness that the country felt we all came together. Right now from COVID to other crisis we’re very torn apart.

There was uncertainty and fear, but 9/11 was something you could process the timeline and see what had happened. It was a little more finite. The most difficult thing with COVID-19 is not knowing when it's going to end.

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